We are witnessing the slow death of a New Hampshire tradition, the town hall meeting of elected officials and the people they represent. Actually, hardly anyone is witnessing the institution’s demise because so few meetings are held and so few citizens attend the rare ones that are. Will there be mourners?
The exceptions prove the rule. In November, Congresswoman Annie Kuster held a meeting with the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire, a group not exactly known as a hotbed of incivility and rabble-rousing. There the congresswoman was asked, “Can you address Benghazi?” Contrary to what Kuster supporters have tried to suggest, this was no set-up, trick question, or gotcha moment. Kuster ineptly ducked the inconvenient inquiry by saying it was off-topic because Libya is not in the Middle East. She crossed her arms defiantly, fidgeted with the microphone, and plaintively looked at the moderator to bail her out. Eventually, he did.
The scene was caught on video and has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube. Kuster, an attorney, lobbyist and advocate before her election to Congress, is usually capable on her feet, but she botched this moment badly.
The lesson for a risk-averse politician is obvious: Avoid putting yourself in situations that might make you look bad. They’ve concluded that the potential downsides of holding open meetings outweigh any upside. Any votes that candidates running for re-election might gain will be fewer than those lost by handing opponents quotes and footage that can be used against them. Why oblige your opponents by making yourself available to the public?
The risk is exacerbated by trackers. Democrats have a paid operative stalking Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte with a video camera whenever she is in public, stooping so far as to film her during Ray Burton’s memorial service. This is done with the tacit approval of Gov. Maggie Hassan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who could halt the harrassment with a phone call.
To her credit, Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter held a town hall meeting last Saturday, at Maple Suites, a senior living community in Dover. Fewer than 50 people attended, most of them residents of the facility. Some of Shea-Porter’s conservative opponents made noise about using the meeting to confront her on Obamacare, which she voted for, but that proved a bust. Only two or three showed up for that purpose.
Shea-Porter took every precaution to preclude a Kuster-like moment. Her event was held at a private facility and attendees were asked to RSVP in advance, creating a means and a pretext to keep undesirables out if needed. The stated topic of the meeting was limited to Medicare and Social Security, so other questions could be ruled out of bounds. (As it turned out, the seniors had as many skeptical questions about Obamacare as everyone else has, even though it doesn’t directly affect them.) Questions were required to be submitted in writing through a moderator so they could be screened, and awkward ones ignored. To ensure there would be no YouTube moments here, video recording was prohibited. There was no open Q&A from the floor.
The resulting discussion, as one might expect under such ground rules, was dull and lacked substance and candor. Mission accomplished. Little information was exchanged, and it is doubtful that any minds were moved. The meeting was a waste of time for all involved. It was a Potemkin town hall.
Members of Congress are not obligated to make themselves piñatas, of course. But most people in elected office enjoy the repartee of debate. Skilled politicians know how to deflect or disarm their critics, or to perform jujitsu and use hecklers for their own political advantage. It is a skill to be practiced and honed. Shea-Porter could consult New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s YouTube page to see how this is done.
Lesser-skilled politicians avoid scheduling open meetings. The result is fewer opportunities for citizens to express themselves to their representatives, and even less candor and spontaneity than usual from politicians when such moments do occur.
This trend isn’t unique to senators and congressmen. Dozens of New Hampshire towns have chosen to abandon Town Meeting as well, so fewer people are accustomed to this traditional New England forum. It may be dying out.
Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @FergusCullen.